Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 10, 2014

Kevin Kelly's New Theology

Kevin Kelly’s theology is a contemporary version of the one George Bernard Shaw articulated a hundred years ago. In “The New Theology: A Sermon,” Shaw wrote,

In a sense there is no God as yet achieved, but there is that force at work making God, struggling through us to become an actual organized existence, enjoying what to many of us is the greatest conceivable ecstasy, the ecstasy of a brain, an intelligence, actually conscious of the whole, and with executive force capable of guiding it to a perfectly benevolent and harmonious end. That is what we are working to. When you are asked, “Where is God? Who is God?” stand up and say, “I am God and here is God, not as yet completed, but still advancing towards completion, just in so much as I am working for the purpose of the universe, working for the good of the whole of society and the whole world, instead of merely looking after my personal ends.” In that way we get rid of the old contradiction, we begin to perceive that the evil of the world is a thing that will finally be evolved out of the world, that it was not brought into the world by malice and cruelty, but by an entirely benevolent designer that had not as yet discovered how to carry out its benevolent intention. In that way I think we may turn towards the future with greater hope.


We might compare this rhetoric to that of Kelly’s new essay in Wired, which begins with a classic Borg Complex move: “We’re expanding the data sphere to sci-fi levels and there’s no stopping it. Too many of the benefits we covet derive from it.” But if resistance is futile, that’s no cause for worry, because resistance would be foolish.

It is no coincidence that the glories of progress in the past 300 years parallel the emergence of the private self and challenges to the authority of society. Civilization is a mechanism to nudge us out of old habits. There would be no modernity without a triumphant self.So while a world of total surveillance seems inevitable, we don’t know if such a mode will nurture a strong sense of self, which is the engine of innovation and creativity — and thus all future progress. How would an individual maintain the boundaries of self when their every thought, utterance, and action is captured, archived, analyzed, and eventually anticipated by others?The self forged by previous centuries will no longer suffice. We are now remaking the self with technology. We’ve broadened our circle of empathy, from clan to race, race to species, and soon beyond that. We’ve extended our bodies and minds with tools and hardware. We are now expanding our self by inhabiting virtual spaces, linking up to billions of other minds, and trillions of other mechanical intelligences. We are wider than we were, and as we offload our memories to infinite machines, deeper in some ways.


There’s no point asking Kelly for details. (“The self forged by previous centuries will no longer suffice” for what? Have we really “broadened our circle of empathy”? What are are we “wider” and “deeper” than, exactly? And what does that mean?) This is not an argument. It is, like Shaw’s “New Theology,” a sermon, directed primarily towards those who already believe and secondarily to sympathetic waverers, the ones with a tiny shred of conscience troubling them about the universal surveillance state whose arrival Kelly awaits so breathlessly. Those who would resist need not be addressed because they’re on their way to — let’s see, what’s that phrase? — ah yes: the “dustbin of history.”

Now, someone might protest at this point that I am not being fair to Kelly. After all, he does say that a one-way surveillance state, in which ordinary people are seen but do not see, would be “hell”; and he even says “A massively surveilled world is not a world I would design (or even desire), but massive surveillance is coming either way because that is the bias of digital technology and we might as well surveil well and civilly.”

Let’s pause for a moment to note the reappearance of the Borg here, and Kelly’s habitual offloading of responsibility from human beings to our tools: for Woody Allen, “the heart wants what it wants” but for Kelly technology wants what it wants, and such sovereign beings always get their way.

But more important, notice here that Kelly thinks it’s a simple choice to decide on two-way surveillance: we “might as well.” He admits that the omnipotent surveillance state would be hell but he obviously doesn’t think that hell has even the remotest chance of happening. Why is he so confident? Because he shares Shaw’s belief in an evolutionary religion in which all that is true and good and holy emerges in history as the result of an inevitably beneficent process. Why should we worry about possible future constrictions of selfhood when the track record of “modernity” is, says Kelly, so utterly spotless, with its “glories of progress” and its “triumphant self”? I mean, it’s not as though modernity had a dark side or anything. All the arrows point skyward. So: why worry?

The only difference between Shaw and Kelly in this respect is that for Shaw the emerging paradisal “ecstasy of a brain” is a human brain; for Kelly it’s digital. Kelly has just identified digital technology as the means by which Shaw’s evolutionary progressivist Utopia will be realized. But what else is new? The rich, powerful, and well-connected always think that they and people like them (a) will end up on the right side of history and (b) will be insulated from harm — which is after all what really counts. Kelly begins his essay thus: “I once worked with Steven Spielberg on the development of Minority Report” — a lovely opener, since it simultaneously allows Kelly to boast about his connections in the film world and to dismiss Philip K. Dick’s dystopian vision as needlessly fretful. When the pre-cog system comes, it won’t be able to hurt anyone who really matters. So let’s just cue up Donald Fagen one more time and get down to the business of learning to desire whatever it is that technology wants. The one remaining spiritual discipline in Kelly's theology is learning to love Big Brother.